Almost four years ago, my husband Bryan and I sat in a classroom with several other terrified couples to complete our training to adopt through foster care. Unlike the other terrified couples, I was 7-months pregnant with our first biological child. It takes a special brand of crazy to pull off what we did, and apparently, Bryan and I fit the branding.
We had Grady in December of 2014, one month before our home officially opened for adoption. The two boys from the Heart Gallery we had our eyes on fell through, so we waited until the following August before getting our first adoptive placement. Clark had turned 14 the day before moving in with us, and he went by a different name back then. He moved in on a Sunday and started high school on Monday with a new school, new town, and new family. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this was the calm before the storm.
A week-and-a-half after Clark moved in for his six-month trial placement before adoption finalization, I found out that I was pregnant. This was a huge shock for us and seemed to be the worst timing imaginable. We had a brand new teenager and a still-nursing 8-month-old. What even? The tears dried and life moved on. I even got to the point of excitement for the new baby who we were thrilled to find out was a girl! Literally, the day after we had our gender reveal party, I got a call from Clark’s caseworker. Thinking that this was a run-of-the-mill check-in call, I launched into our struggles and any issues we were having at the time. She patiently waited until I finished this ridiculously unimportant information before dropping the bomb on me. Clark’s biological mother had delivered a baby and abandoned him at the hospital. We didn’t even know she was pregnant, and apparently, this baby was 2 weeks old now and being released from the NICU. She asked if we would be willing to adopt him as well as Clark. I was dumbstruck. I immediately called Bryan. We started off the call saying “We can’t do this, right?” And ended it by saying “I mean, we kind of have to do this, don’t we?” A few days later, I was 16 weeks pregnant and being handed a drug-addicted newborn.
This is a nutshell version if there ever was one, but I wanted to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. Because like many new adoptive parents, we thought that the story above was the ending that tied into a bow and led to the happily ever after. We had heard of trauma disorders and drug addiction, but we didn’t realize how prevalent they were or how likely it was that this would impact us not once, but twice. This led us to so many small lessons that wrap up into two very different adoption stories.
Let me start with our oldest. Clark has a long history of abuse and neglect that are not my story to tell, but what is my story to tell is how his story impacted our family and how stories like his are more often the rule, not the exception. When Clark was removed from his home, he was placed in a group home for his next three years. During that time, he had eight different therapists that were most often fresh out of school and in transition to their “real job.” He never had the opportunity to open up or for anyone to determine the depth of his trauma. When we were handed his file to consider for adoption, it told us that he was a normal, well-rounded kid. Shortly after he moved in, we realized that this could not be farther from the truth. Clark has a trauma disorder called RAD, or Reactive Attachment Disorder. This was a term we heard loosely in training, but like most of the other things, we assumed it was not likely to affect us. Briefly, RAD causes a disruption in brain development that prevents a child from forming attachments with other people. This sounds very clinical, so let me break it down. It means that Clark has difficulty feeling empathy or connection to others. He doesn’t really get those emotional feelings that typically come with any relationship, positive or negative. This makes RAD kids extremely well-versed in the art of manipulation. It’s a survival skill for them. It is also exhausting and mentally wearing for caregivers because it is so hard to diagnose, explain or present to anyone else, and very difficult to treat.
Before we move onto the “lesson learned” part, let me move over to our other adopted kiddo, Roc. Roc was born with a myriad of drugs in his system. It took him about 4 months to fully detox and withdraw from them. Those were some dark days for us. Roc had both uppers and downers in his system, so he cried almost 24/7 and also had tremors and reflux issues. No one got a lot of sleep during those months, and attachment with him was hard at first. We pushed through though and things got much better, even now, at three years old, that drug abuse still haunts us. It has caused him to have impulse control and emotional regulation issues, sensory processing problems, and loads of behavioral difficulties. On top of all of this, he was also newly diagnosed with a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome. This has nothing to do with his trauma disorders, but it is life-threatening and all of his specialist appointments are made much more difficult because of his regulation issues.
Many of you reading who are adoptive parents may be freaking out right now wondering why I am seemingly dissuading others from joining us in this crazy-pants calling of adoption, and that’s a fair concern, but it is not my goal. You see, when we started this journey, I thought I was going to step up and be a champion for adoption and for these kids who are most definitely considered to be “the least of these.” Instead, God had another plan for me, to champion for adoptive parents in the hardest years of their lives. There are so many resources out there helping parents to raise these children better, to connect more, to attach quicker, and those are so important, but where the gap lies is in resources for the parents themselves.
We can never know how much secondary trauma can affect us until we have lived it, and by then we are often already on the brink of giving up. We are weary and exhausted and lonely and just DONE. I am a firm believer that with more information and preparation comes power. If we know about these trauma disorders and how to spot them and how to manage them up front when we still have our excited faces on, then that burn-out won’t come as quickly or maybe never. We’re doing a disservice to adoptive parents by brushing over the yucky truths so as not to scare them.
This is why I started The Adoptive Mom Podcast. It’s an interview-style show that highlights adoption stories and helpful resources from all angles of adoption: adoptive parents, birth parents, specialists, adopted kids, adopted adults, support systems, grandparents, therapists, and the list goes on. We talk about failed adoptions, disrupted adoptions, placing a child into in-patient treatment, adoption of kids with disabilities, and so much more.
As parents, we are often burdened with the pressure to be great at everything. Every time we lose our temper, don’t get those dishes done, or don’t handle a situation even close to correctly, we add another notch to that shame tally. We never stop to think of where these kids might be if we hadn’t said yes, and how our measuring sticks have to look different than a typical parent’s. We can’t measure ourselves by catching these kids up to their peers and then some. That’s too heavy. We have to hold their stories up next to their lives now and remember that we are saying yes to the hard stuff. We are doing what many say that they can’t do when they really just don’t want to. We are changing these kids’ stories for the better, and Jesus is saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Knowledge is power, and we as the adoptive community have a duty to stand up and tell people how hard this is, and then tell them all of the reasons it is worth it.
Alex Fittin is married to Bryan and is the mom of Clark, Grady, Roc, and Jane. She is the host of The Adoptive Mom Podcast and loves to speak on adoptive parent support, secondary trauma prevention, and how to find resources to better stay in the adoption game. Alex loves Jesus, coffee, and wine, connecting with friends, and going to the movies any chance she gets. Alex and her family live in Northwest Arkansas.